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Film room: How the Patriots got their running game going against the Redskins

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New England Patriots Vs Washington Redskins At FedEx Field Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For the first 30 minutes of their Week 5 game against the Washington Redskins, the New England Patriots offense was unable to get going. While it did have some good moments and scored 12 total points to take a lead into the second half, the unit’s pass-centric approach allowed for the opponent to take advantage of some shaky pass protection while not having to focus on a running game that saw only seven carries.

The second half, however, was a different story as New England was able to effectively move the football down the field and score touchdowns on three of its first four possessions. While better execution across the board played a role in it, so did a commitment to running the football: the Patriots ran 15 times on 27 plays between the second half kickoff and taking a 33-7 lead in the early fourth period.

How was the unit able to get its running game going? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

1-10-NE 25 (15:00) S.Michel up the middle to NE 27 for 2 yards (C.Holcomb).

The first play of the second half already was a sign of things to come for the Patriots and their rushing attack. Aligning in a 21-personnel group with two backs — Sony Michel (#26) and Jakob Johnson (#47) — and tight end Matt LaCosse (#83) on the field, the Patriots used some pre-snap motion against Washington’s zone coverage: Johnson was moved into the backfield after originally aligning split out to the right side of the formation.

New England then called a run out of the I-formation that went for only two yards, but showed that the Patriots were onto something with Johnson on the field as a lead blocker:

NFL Game Pass

The blocks were actually set up well up front against the Redskins’ 3-4 Okie Front (the nose tackle playing 0-technique over the center, with the ends in 4-technique spots over the offensive tackles): by the time Michel was handed the football, almost every player in the front seven was accounted for with the offensive line using single blocks on the left side of the line and at right tackle, and a combo block up the middle.

Johnson read the play well and took on linebacker and former Patriot Jon Bostic (#53). This left one player open, and he was the one making the tackle after just two yards: rookie Cole Holcomb (#55) was able to get away from right guard Shaq Mason (#69) who failed to secure him after peeling off his originally double team. At that point, however, Michel was already on the ground after center Ted Karras (#75) had been unable to keep his position against nose tackle Tim Settle (#97).

While the execution was far from perfect, the plan itself was sound and gave New England a foundation upon which to build.

1-10-WAS 49 (13:01) S.Michel left tackle to WAS 44 for 5 yards (C.Holcomb).

Three plays later, the Patriots again had the same 21-personnel group on the field and moved Jakob Johnson (#47) into the backfield before the snap. While he did not align in a traditional I-formation set but rather off-set to the weak side of the formation, the undrafted rookie’s presence again proved crucial to the success of the play — a first down run that went for five yards and set up a manageable second down situation:

NFL Game Pass

At the snap, the Patriots’ offensive line moved to the right but the team was actually using a split-zone scheme up front: while four members of the line and tight end Matt LaCosse (#83) moved to the right, right guard Shaq Mason (#69) and Johnson served as the lead blockers in the opposite direction. This movement forced Washington’s off-the-ball linebackers to hesitate just one bit before attacking — and New England took advantage.

As the first blocker across the formation, Mason took on strong side linebacker Ryan Anderson (#52) to seal off the edge. Johnson, meanwhile, went up against Jon Bostic (#53) again to create a nice alley for Michel to run through and get to the second level. While LaCosse ultimately failed to hold his block long enough, allowing Cole Holcomb (#55) to get open and chase the ball carrier down, the runner was already through the initial line of blockers before he got tackled.

2-5-WAS 44 (12:17) S.Michel right tackle to WAS 33 for 11 yards (J.Norman).

The very next play was more of the same for the Patriots: the team employed a 21-personnel package and Jakob Johnson (#47) was motioned into the backfield before the snap. The fullback again aligned off-set to the right, but this time on the strong side of the formation behind tight end Matt LaCosse (#83). The formation itself was not the only difference to the last run, however, as New England also used a different blocking scheme.

While running split-zone on first down, the Patriots now went with a straight up man-to-man scheme:

NFL Game Pass

The play itself was simple smash-mouth football, and perfect execution across the board. Right guard Shaq Mason (#69) was able to successfully peel off his combo block with center Ted Karras (#75) to get to the second level; LaCosse and right tackle Marcus Cannon (#71) were able to create an opening on the line; Johnson was able to get enough on Jon Bostic (#53) to prevent him from having an impact on the play; Julian Edelman (#11) eliminated safety Landon Collins (#20).

Of course, running back Sony Michel (#26) cannot be forgotten either. The second-year man, who had his best game of the season as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, read his blocks perfectly and quickly burst through the initial line of blockers into the second level. He did not slow down once there, which allowed him to gain an additional six yards after first being contacted.

1-10-NE 27 (6:40) S.Michel left tackle pushed ob at WAS 48 for 25 yards (M.Nicholson).

After using their fullback extensively on their first drive of the second half — one that ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Brandon Bolden to put the team up 19-7 — the Patriots went with two tight ends on the second series. The results again were positive, as the execution up front and the holes it created allowed the offense to march down the field for another touchdown. Once again, the running game played a pivotal role.

The third play of the series, a 1st and 10 from New England’s 27-yard line, was the biggest of the entire drive as Sony Michel (#26) was able to take the football for a gain of 25 yards out of a 12-personnel formation. Before the snap, tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) motioned closer to the formation after originally aligning split out wide to the right and he would make a key block to help Michel get into the defensive backfield and more:

NFL Game Pass

While the offensive line shifted to the right after the snap, Izzo actually pulled across the formation to take on weak-side contain player Ryan Kerrigan (#91). The second-year tight end did a good job by not overrunning the defender, and chipping him just enough to take him out of the play and open a hole for Michel. And with both left tackle Marshall Newhouse (#72) and left guard Joe Thuney (#62) holding their blocks, a path was open.

Newhouse in particular deserves a mentioned here. The left tackle, who is filling in for an injured Isaiah Wynn, did not have his best game as a pass protector, but made some good blocks in the running game; this was one of them: the 31-year-old briefly helped Thuney against 3-technique defensive end Jonathan Allen with a chip before moving up the field to take on Cole Holcomb (#55).

Had Newhouse not been able to make that block on Holcomb, the play would likely not have gone for 25 yards. He did, however, which allowed Michel to get free after patiently letting his blocks develop and reading the holes very well. Once out in the open, the former first-round draft pick showed his burst by outrunning Holcomb and taking the football down the field for some significant yardage.

This play and the three others illustrated above are good examples of how the Patriots were able to kickstart their struggling ground game against Washington: the execution up front worked well and the scheme put players in a position to be successful; Michel read his blocks and followed them; additional blockers — be they tight ends or fullback Jakob Johnson — also helped win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

All in all, New England has a lot to feel good about coming out of this game and the development of the ground attack.